Keep on keeping on: why we must persevere in our study of the Higgs boson

Taken from the July 2022 issue of Physics World. Members of the Institute of Physics can enjoy the full issue via the Physics World app.

A decade after the announcement that the Higgs boson had been found, particle physicist Daniel Whiteson and artist Jorge Cham wonder how we can sustain the excitement of 4 July 2012 and what new particles – if any – might be awaiting discovery

2012: we found the Higgs boson

The discovery of the Higgs boson was a massive triumph. Not just for the physicists who spent decades designing, building, tuning and operating CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and its huge detectors. It was also a triumph for scientific imagination.

Physics had done something bold. We looked at the patterns of the particles and said: “This would make more sense if there was another piece, right here.” As if the universe were a jigsaw puzzle and we could imagine the shape of the next piece.

And we found it! The discovery of the Higgs boson showed us that our imagination, with a healthy dose of deduction, can reveal the shape of reality.

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And we had many more ideas too. Important pieces of the puzzle were still missing from our understanding of the fundamental particles, and physicists had interesting new ideas for what those pieces could be. Could the Higgs boson’s mysteriously small mass, for example, be explained by a swarm of new particles with names like gluinos, sbottoms, photinos and staus?

We were intoxicated by the power that our imagination and our scientific tools had allowed us to have, and we looked forward to finding many new particles in the next decade at the LHC.

2022: We’re still hoping to see something (anything!)

Ten years later, we haven’t found any more puzzle pieces. Despite 10 trillion (1013) trips for particles around the LHC rings, and 100 quadrillion (1017) proton collisions, no new particles have been discovered. Had we been too clever with our ideas? Not clever enough? Was it a mistake to think that imagination could guide us to new discoveries? Was it a mistake to keep running the LHC? Or to plan for more powerful, future accelerators?

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A decade of experiments has confirmed what we already knew: research is exploration, where discoveries are never guaranteed. Nothing that we’ve found at the LHC in the last 10 years has generated the kind of fanfare and excitement that came from discovering the Higgs boson. But that’s not why we do it.

We explore because we are not content with just thinking about beautiful ideas of what might be. We want to know what is real. It’s the same reason we land rovers on Mars or send spacecraft to scan the moons of Jupiter. Because to explore is to venture into the unknown. Imagination motivates exploration, it doesn’t replace it.

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Sometimes you have to step into the unknown to confirm what is, and isn’t, there. Remember that not finding new particles can often be as significant as finding them; we should never underestimate the power of null results – and who said physics was ever straightforward or easy? The LHC’s work will surely guide us through the next phase of particle-physics exploration as we continue to look for new pieces of the grand puzzle of nature.

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